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Bamboo Organ of Las Piñas

January 16th, 2014 pvfont13

In the periphery of the Metro Manila area lies the smaller city of Las Piñas.  The city of Las Piñas is quite different.  Although it is listed as part of the contiguous Metro Manila region, it borders the neighboring province of Cavite and feels more like a part of the provinces rather than a part of the big city. Las Piñas provides much of the Philippines’ salt and has since the Spanish Era.  Walking into Las Piñas is quite like stepping into the old Manila, seeing what it must have been like for the viceroys and other Spanish heads that ruled the Philippines so many years ago.

The main tourist attraction is the Bamboo Organ in St. Joseph’s Church.  Built in the 19th century by parish priest, Diego Cera, the Bamboo Organ as indicated by its namesake is built from bamboo.  Bamboo like many places in Asia is a staple in building structures, cultivating food, and making musical instruments.  Bamboo for many Asian traditions also represents a metaphysical connection to the land informed by Southeast Asian spirituality.  The Bamboo Organ is exceptional because it is a western instrument.  It represents a fusion of western music with Asian ingenuity.  Organ scholars from all over the West love to perform and study the Bamboo Organ.

I got to play a bit on the demonstration organ and it has a distinct timbre (sound color).  It really is built as advertised.  If you know what bamboo sounds like, just imagine it pitched to the western tonal system, and the result is exactly what you think it would be.

I was in awe of the Bamboo Organ.  While many Filipino musics are built on a combination of western traditions melding with native resources and culture, the Bamboo Organ represents a higher transcendence of melding traditions.  The fact that an organ, a highly sophisticated western instrument and the primary instrument of one of the most important western composers of all time, J.S. Bach, can be made with native earth materials from the other side of the world, really struck a chord with me.  There are legitimate new musical experiences in the Philippines for everyone, not just ethnomusicology and composition researchers like myself and the Bamboo Organ is definitely one of them.  In seeing and hearing the Bamboo Organ I started envisioning a what-if scenario.

I wondered what would happen if Olivier Messiaen, an organist, as well as one of the greatest Catholic composers of the 20th century were to play this organ.  Messiaen was fond of incorporating many non-western musics into his work including South Asian and Southeast Asian traditions.  In fact one of his best-known works, the Turangalîla-Symphonie uses a configured ensemble of xylophones to imitate Indonesian gamelan.  What would happen if Messiaen were to hammer away at this organ in Las Piñas and step into the Filipino universe built on Southeast Asian spirituality mixed with Spanish Catholic tradition?  What would his reaction be to experiencing a combination of unlikely forces from polar ends of the earth? 1507046_2445095086567_445436222_n 1544379_2445094886562_1404797900_n 1526157_2445098166644_152900066_n

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Paul Fontelo '13

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